War zones, maniacal dictators, Soviet hideouts, camel herdsmen and mythical ski resorts. This is the Asian ski experience for true adventurers.
Japan is Asia’s undisputed home of snow sports. Skiers have been tearing up Hokkaido’s powder fields for decades. More recently, both China and Korea have emerged as viable ski destinations. But Asia is a huge continent with some of the tallest peaks in the world. What if the best ski areas on the planet are going unnoticed?
1. Tavan Bogd Mountains, Mongolia
The Tavan Bogd (“five saints”) mountains are found on the western fringe of Mongolia, straddling the Chinese border. Comprising five of Mongolia’s highest peaks, the mountains form a bowl shape around several freshwater lakes and glaciers (including Potanin Glacier, the country’s largest). The mountains are part of the greater Altay Tavan Bogd National Park which spans more than 630,000 hectares. The region is totally uninhabited, save for the odd shepherd. In recent years, a handful of companies have begun offering ski tours of the area.
Blue Wolf Travel, one such company, offers a 13-day ski tour of the the Tavan Bogd. Tour groups rely on camels to lug gear, led by local herdsmen. A 16 km hike is required to reach base camp—located at the foot of Khuiten Uul, Mongolia’s highest peak (4374 m). Participants can expect to endure several hours of hiking per day. The reward for this—acres upon acres of virgin snow.
Tours run in April and May when the snow is fresh. Conditions, even at this time of year, are severe. Blizzards are inevitable. The park is also home to a diverse range of wildlife, including grey wolves, snow leopards and bears!
2. Bamyan, Afghanistan
War, terrorism, extreme poverty and a violent drug trade. There are plenty of reasons not to visit Afghanstan. Despite this, the mountainside town of Bamyan in central Afghanistan is emerging as an unlikely tourist desistination. The town is wedged between the Hindu Kush and the Koh-e-Baba, two of the country’s tallest mountain ranges. Intrepid skiers are ignoring government travel advice in search of pristine snow.
Untamed Borders, a UK-based tour operator, has been offering guided ski trips to Bamyan since 2011. The company promises ‘acres of powder on virgin routes’. The tour is led by English-speaking local guides, with skiers of all abilities catered for. Past trips have coincided with the annual Afghan Ski Challege, a 2-4 km backcountry race, introduced by the Bamyan Ski Club, a Swiss non-profit.
Bamyan’s remote ski fields are accessed only by foot—no ski lifts or snowcats. This hasn’t deterred locals who have taken to the sport in numbers. Many of Bamyan’s skiers are self-taught, using clunky home-made equipment to navigate the slopes. Earlier this year, the town sent two of its own to the World Ski Championships in St Moritz—a first for Afghanistan. Both men hope to qualify for PyeongChang 2018.
3. Masikyrong Ski Resort, North Korea
Just stepping into North Korea is an adventure in itself. The hermit kingdom, led by Kim Jong-un, is well known for its draconian laws and restrictions. Tourists have been subjected to horrendous punishment for seemingly trivial crimes. Despite this, up to 6000 western tourists visited North Korea last year. Among those was Sam Smoothy, a Kiwi freestyle skier whose trip to Masikyrong Ski Resort was filmed for the documentary, ‘The (North) Korean Chronicle’.
“We just wanted to peak behind the curtain of a hidden country, and show it to you, as it was shown to us.”
Masikyrong opened in 2014 after just 10 months of construction. The 1,400-hectare ‘luxury’ resort is located in Kangwon province, three hours from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Despite intentions that it would boost North Korea’s tourist appeal, Masikyrong has failed to attract visitors. The resort is largely unused, according to reports.
4. Maoke Mountains, Indonesia
Indonesia is best known for its sun-drenched beaches and coral reefs, less so for its snowsports industry! But in 2016, Guinness aired a 2-minute commercial featuring the snow-capped Maoke Mountains in Papua. The ad showcased an effort to unearth a rumoured ski resort, built 40 years prior. The Indonesian actors involved had never even seen snow (let alone skied!).
Sure enough, the mission was a success (if the ad is to be taken at face value). An abandoned ski lift was discovered at 15,700 feet, confirming the existence of the world’s second highest ski resort. Little has been made of the discovery since. Skiers, it seems, aren’t much interested.
Reportedly built in 1978, the resort was the brainchild of Sir John McCisk, a Scottish skier and expat. It was constructed in the shadow of Puncak Jaya, Maoke’s highest peak. Three Japanese-built ski lifts were erected, including two pommas and a rope tow. It’s unknown if the lifts are still in working order (or even real!).
Those keen on an Indonesian ski odyssey face a few obstacles. Permits to enter the region are notoriously difficult to obtain. Photos on Panaramio suggest that skiers have made it as far as Northwall Firn (one of Maoke’s enormous glaciers). Whatever the case, adventure awaits!
5. Changbaishan, China
Changbaishan is a volcanic mountain range on the border between China and North Korea. Its highest peak, Mount Baekdu, is said to be the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s former supreme leader. Rumour aside, the region offers some of the best powder skiing in China.
Changbaishan is home to one of China’s premier ski resorts, but it’s the region’s backcountry that has attracted the likes of Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots. In 2016, the pair ventured up Mount Baekdu, intending to ski into its crater. Ultimately, they aborted the mission, fearing the consequences of skiing so close to the North Korean border. Their expedition was filmed for Jordan Manley’s documentary series, ‘A Skier’s Journey’. In the film, the skiers explain their decision to turn back:
“On top, we’re forced to contemplate not just mythology, but the consequences of skiing into the crater. It’s unclear what terrain is in and out of bounds, and what will happen if we duck a rope. If it slides [or] if we need a rescue, it will be a Chinese military helicopter landing on the border of North Korea – beamed back home on the news.”
For those interested, cat-ski tours of Changbaishan National Park are available (operating near the park’s west gate). According to reports, it’s far from a professional set-up, but certainly an adventure.
6. Ala-Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Archa National Park is a protected alpine area in Kyrgyzstan, just 40 km south of Bishkek, the nation’s capital. The park lies within the Tian Shan mountain range, Asia’s largest mountain system. It encompasses more than 50 peaks, many of which are 4000+ metres. The park is also home to the elusive snow leopard, a species on the brink of extinction (fewer than 5000 creatures remain).
Ala-Archa has been skied since the Soviet era when it was used as a training ground for Olympians. In a particularly remote corner of the gorge is an abandoned ski base, the last remnant of that era. Nowadays, the base is used by tour groups, skiers, mountaineers and hikers. Despite Ala-Archa’s proximity to Bishkek, the severity of its landscape is enough to deter most from entering, particularly during the Kyrgyzstani winter.
Needless to say, skiing Ala-Archa requires a high degree of fitness and a good understanding of avalanche safety. Various multi-day tours are available, some of which include up to 12 hours of hiking per day. It’s recommended that skiers pack an airbag, beacon, shovel and probe before venturing into Kyrgyzstan’s rugged backcountry.
7. Gulmarg, India
Gulmarg is a Himalayan town on the northern tip of India. It belongs to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a region known for its incredible natural beauty. India’s north has suffered from years of political and religious conflict. The hill station of Gulmarg, however, remains relatively peaceful.
Topping out at 3,980 m, Gulmarg Ski Resort is one of the highest in the world. The gondola (officially the world’s highest) ascends Mount Apharwat, part of the monstrous Pir Panjal Range. At this altitude, weather conditions can turn on a dime. In June 2017, seven people were killed when a tree, uprooted by severe winds, fell onto the gondola’s cable. The government claims there is no operational issue with the lift. However, service remains suspended.
Skiers are not confined to the resort. Gulmarg offers some of the best heli-ski touring in the world. Kashmir Heliski, established in 2011, runs tours of Gulmarg’s Pir Panjal Range. Skiers are given access to some of India’s highest peaks, allowing for descents of more than 2000 m. Gulmarg’s backcountry is serious business—avalanches are not uncommon. But to ski Himalayan powder is, no doubt, pretty special.
8. Alborz Mountains, Iran
Iran’s rugged landscape is dominated by mountains and plateaus. Two of the country’s most popular ski resorts, Dizin and Shemshak, are located in the Alborz, a mountain range that spans the length of Iran’s north coast (almost 1000 km). The region is also home to Mount Damavand, Asia’s tallest volcano.
Skiing Dizin is an interesting experience if not for the actual skiing—which is fairly mellow. Shemshak, just 30 minutes away, offers some steeper gradients. But Iran’s best skiing isn’t found within resort bounds. The country’s best slopes are unmapped and unconquered.
The entire Alborz region offers huge potential for backcountry skiing. Iran Exploration is one company ahead of the curve, running ski tours of Mount Damavand and Doberar Ridge (including descents of several 4000+ metre peaks). Beginning in Tehran, the 11-day tour runs through April and May.